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nathalie atkinson

As year-end list makers prepare to lament the Canadian labels that have regrettably shuttered this year, there are lessons to be learned about who the average customer who buys Made in Canada fashion really is. I'm talking about the loyal ones who exist in sufficient numbers to keep a business afloat season after season.

Chances are that most fashion-conscious Canadians, flipping through a magazine or watching red-carpet coverage on Canadian entertainment shows, have heard of stalwart designers such as Denis Gagnon or Marie Saint Pierre. But there are next-gen Canadian designers who have been just as successful (relatively speaking, and even if we aren't being relative) for years. If they're discussed at all, it's like they're a best-kept secret, so seldom are they seen in the credits of fashion editorials. Yet their well-made, thoughtful creations are probably found in more closets coast to coast than many of the other high-profile names frequently rhymed off by starlets caught in mid-pose.

Victoire, an independent retailer with stores in Ottawa and Toronto, is an inspiring source for homegrown style from all over the country (its tagline is "Smitten with Canadian design"). As it happens, the most popular Canadian collections at the store, which is co-owned by Regine Paquette and Katie Frappier, are the very designers who supply what I'm talking about. Significantly, all are from Quebec and, specifically, from Montreal.

Take Valérie Dumaine, who in 2013 celebrated her label's 10-year anniversary and is still going strong, carried in over two dozen locations across the country. There is also Chicoutimi native Eve Gravel, who studied at the Richard Robinson Academy in Ottawa before starting her own eponymous label in 2002. Today, Gravel is carried in about 50 Canadian stores (as well as in Florida, California and New York); thanks to a certain rock-chick quality, her clothes have been donned by such boldface names as Coeur de Pirate, Norah Jones and Lou Doillon. Then there's Birds of North America, Victoria-born Hayley Gibson's line of vintage-inspired clothing. She is also based in Montreal, where she specializes in quirky-sweet fit-and-flare dresses (think the type of clothes worn by Zooey Deschanel, Kazan and the like).

Birds of North America has been the number-one line at Victoire for a couple of years straight, Paquette says over the phone from Ottawa. That's both in sales volume ("she sells like banana cakes – it's her fit!") and customer loyalty. Gravel and Dumaine, she adds, are very close behind. Another favourite is Betina Lou, designer Marie-Eve Emond's five-year-old label. "Her pieces, like the perfect striped knit-in-Montreal sweater that looks great with a high-waisted skirt, are very much French-gamine staples."

The popularity of these Montreal-based designers can't just be coincidence. They don't have an aesthetic in common. Or get much press. What is it that they're doing right?

Here's the secret: They're cool Canadian lines that many Canadian women buy because they can afford to.

Instead of trying to compete in the more rarefied designer-contemporary category, where label status tends to overshadow the garments (and which, quite frankly, is the arena most Toronto designers attempt to compete in and conquer, with varying success), these labels think in terms of fashion being accessible and of good quality. They work backward from a reasonable price tag, one that hovers on either side of the $200 mark (more often than not, on the lesser side).

"Katie and I are technically fashion insiders, yet we still feel that, when we go to certain shops, the clothes are so inaccessible to us," Paquette tells me. "If that's how we feel, who is it for? It's very important for us at Victoire to be accessible, price-point wise. And I think the best designers from Montreal are super-conscious of that."

Part of the duo's realistic approach springs from the fact that, when they opened their first boutique eight years ago, they were "so young," right out of university. And just like designers, they had to cultivate regular customers, ones who come back every season and generate word of mouth one great but affordable piece at a time.

"We were 24 and couldn't sell anything with a straight face that we couldn't buy ourselves," Paquette recalls. "We weren't selling pretend things for pretend people – we wanted real people to buy them for real life."